A groundbreaking new tool, NFPA LiNK, reinvents the experience of using NFPA codes and standards—and sets the stage for the organization’s future as a hub of digital information and knowledge.
By Angelo Verzoni
At one point in late March, Google searches for “how to make toilet paper” were up 1,300 percent. Other trending how-to searches sought answers on the finer points of cutting men’s hair at home and making face masks and hand-sanitizing wipes from common household items.
While the data, from Google Trends, revealed a curious America doing its best to DIY its way through the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also indicative of how human behavior has shifted with the ascendancy of the Internet. Gone are the days when books lining library shelves were the first stop for folks looking to learn about something new, or about a detail of a particular topic. Today, people seek that information through digital channels. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that over half of the adults in the United States who visit YouTube use it for learning how to do things they’ve never done before: tie a necktie, cook a bouillabaisse, change their motor oil.
The world of fire, electrical, and life safety is no different. In recent years, engineers, electricians, firefighters, and the many other professionals who regularly use NFPA codes and standards have told the organization—through conversations, surveys, and a variety of other means—that digital access to that information and to related materials is an essential component in helping them do their jobs effectively and efficiently.
In response to that demand, the organization has developed NFPA LiNK™, a new web-based application that promises to revolutionize the way NFPA delivers its codes and standards and other information to safety professionals.
“We’ve spent a lot of time listening to you,” Jim Pauley, NFPA president and CEO, said during a recent web event announcing NFPA LiNK. “We have heard from you that a physical codebook or a static digital version of a book are not the best means to help solve problems on a real-time basis. You want information faster, on different devices—phones, tablets, laptops—and with an easy-to-use interface. We also heard that you don’t only want the text of a code or standard—you want context and insights to help you understand problems and develop solutions.” The live announcement, held August 4, attracted thousands of viewers, many of whom also explored the product’s new web page, nfpa.org/link.
Think of NFPA LiNK like an NFPA code book meets Google meets Netflix. Users pay a monthly fee for a subscription, which provides them access to a digital platform where they can find, annotate, and share code information relevant to their day-to-day work. New content will continually be added to the platform and evolve based on users’ needs.
Set for release on September 21, the first iteration of NFPA LiNK will include the contents of the current and past three editions of NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®. More codes and standards are on the way, and upcoming versions of the application will be equipped with groundbreaking features aimed at delivering relevant and targeted content to users in an instant.
The product is already generating buzz. “When I first heard about LiNK, I thought, ‘This is going to be awesome,’” said Larry Ayer, an electrical contractor and engineer who is involved in a number of NFPA committees, including as chair of the correlating committee for NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®. “The world is changing. It’s moving to a digital platform. It’s paperless. So this is going to fit right in and be a game changer as far as how people interact with NFPA codes and standards.”
‘Curating your own experience’
The rollout of NFPA LiNK represents a “radical change” for a 124-year-old organization like NFPA, Pauley said during the August 4 event. So how did the organization arrive here, and what exactly will the platform offer?
When Erik Hohengasser was first tapped to work on a project to develop an NFPA content-on-demand platform, as it was called in its incipient stages, he knew it was going to be a success. “It just made sense,” Hohengasser said. “It clicked.”
Hohengasser, an engineering technical services lead at NFPA with a background as an electrical contractor was part of a six-member NFPA team that spent more than a year developing NFPA LiNK. An important aspect of the team’s mission, Hohengasser said, was to create a tool that was as technologically up-to-date as possible. “You can always talk about the rapid pace of change and the effects of technology on every industry, and the same rings true for NFPA,” he said. “The reality is that the digital platforms that we’ve leveraged in the past didn’t take advantage of the most modern technologies the world has to offer, and NFPA LiNK does that.”
It’s much more than just a digitized version of codes.
“It allows users to curate their own experience,” Hohengasser said. “We’ve seen forever that users take notes in code books—it’s what they do. They mark them up, they highlight them. We’ve taken advantage of the technologies available to us to allow them to continue that curation experience, and to let it persist across editions as code books start to change.”
Ayer, who is also vice president of Bizcom Electric, a Cincinnati-based commercial electrical contracting company, said he’s excited about the transparency and potential for collaboration NFPA LiNK will bring to his industry. “What we’ve done as a company in the past is go out and buy code books for almost everyone in our organization,” he said. “But we just distribute them and that’s it. We don’t know how the users actually use them or how they share the information. With this new approach, using LiNK in a teams-based subscription, we can start sharing code sections and talking about different requirements. It’ll be a more collaborative approach.”
Perhaps the most significant aspect of NFPA LiNK is that users don’t need to know how to navigate a traditional code book to utilize a code. Instead, it features what Pauley referred to as “situation-based navigation.” Need to know which code language applies to electrical outlets in residential bathrooms? Just use a function known as DiRECT to apply filters applicable to a given situation, which is a lot easier and faster than scanning the table of contents or the indexes of a bulky code book. Examples of filter categories include the occupancy type, such as residential; the space, such as a bathroom; and the equipment, such as receptacles. “LiNK aggregates information across codes and standards so users can understand what applies to a given situation,” Pauley said.
When more codes and standards are added to LiNK, its situation-based navigation could also potentially show users information from documents they didn’t even know existed. Hohengasser recalled his first time wiring a commercial kitchen; he had his NEC book, but that didn’t give him any insight into how commercial kitchens function in the real world—how, in the event of a fire, the kitchen’s exhaust fan must turn on and the intake fan off. “It makes total sense, because you don’t want to continue to feed a fire and we want to get it out,” he said. “But from an electrical perspective, my brain wasn’t thinking that way, and those requirements don’t live in the electrical code—they live in NFPA 96, Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations. That’s an example where an installer in the field could use LiNK to find the language for that particular situation.”
Ayer agreed. “NFPA has hundreds of standards,” he said. “And the truth is, even seasoned fire and life safety professionals aren’t aware of them all. With LiNK, you’ll be able to one day look up a task-based topic and it’ll provide you with all that additional information you might not have had in the past. I think that is a tremendous benefit.”
Another benefit, he added, will be the ease by which new terms can be added to the application’s database and found by users—something that wasn’t so easy in the past. “As new terms like ‘cyber security’ and ‘wireless technologies’ have emerged, the codes have lagged behind in adopting those terms, and when they did, it just made the code books longer and more complex and harder to find things in,” Ayer said. “LiNK will help with that.”
Eyeing the future
During the August 4 NFPA LiNK reveal, Pauley was quick to note that while this moment represents a sea change for NFPA and the larger world of fire, life, and electrical safety, it doesn’t spell the end of traditional methods of conveying information—at least for now. “The books aren’t going away,” he said. “If you still want a book, you can get one.” But, he added, LiNK “will bring that book to life in ways you can’t imagine.”
Already, people like Pauley and Hohengasser are imagining what the future of LiNK could hold. Right now, the possibilities seem endless, limited only by the boundaries of technology. What if a LiNK user could take a photograph or video of a room and instantly see all of the code language that applies to that space? It’s an ambitious idea, Hohengasser said, but it’s typical of the kinds of LiNK features under consideration by the NFPA team that will continue to develop the application for years to come. “We’re thinking big, we’re thinking further down the road,” he said. “If we can build something and it brings value, we’ll build it.”
Although NFPA publishes hundreds of codes and standards, few approach the popularity and reach of the NEC, which is why that document was selected for the rollout of LiNK. The code is adopted in all 50 states, and for the 2020 edition alone, 3,700 public inputs and nearly 2,000 comments were incorporated. Not only will the 2020 NEC be included in the first version of LiNK, but so will the 2011, 2014, and 2017 editions of the code.
In the fall, NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, will be added to LiNK, followed by several more documents over the winter, including NFPA 1, Fire Code; NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®; and NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code.
Much of the future development of LiNK will be driven by user feedback, Hohengasser said. “If we find a lot of people are having the same problem as they apply NFPA codes and standards, we’ll be able to develop features and functions aimed at addressing that problem.”
Ideally, the future of LiNK will also be shaped by a new, younger generation of safety professionals—the kind of audience that a tool like LiNK can help attract to NFPA in the first place. “My son’s 22, just graduated from college, and when I would ask him where his textbooks were, he would hold up his phone,” said Andy Jenks, vice president of marketing and digital experience for NFPA, in a presentation about LiNK to NFPA staff earlier this year. “That’s how he gets all of his information. When we think of younger audiences, something like this is critical to how they like to look up and absorb information.”
Attracting younger generations to codes and standards information through LiNK could also benefit many of the industries with whom NFPA is involved. Electrical industry groups like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have for years voiced concerns over an aging workforce of electrical professionals and diminishing pools of young people to replace them.
A 2018 article published in Electrical Contractor magazine said part of the problem was a misconception that electrical work is nothing more than manual labor, when in reality it’s becoming more “technology-driven” and “cutting-edge” every day. “It’s helpful to incorporate technology into the business—for example, building virtual reality headsets into training—and ‘green up’ the trade to make it more attractive to young people,” Stephen Hughes, director of a market research firm, told the publication. LiNK adds another piece to the puzzle of figuring out how to attract tech-minded young people to the industry.
“I think LiNK will be a huge asset for younger generations entering the electrical field who grew up with technologies like Google and YouTube,” Hohengasser said. “They’re used to having information delivered instantly, at their fingertips, and that’s what LiNK brings to the table.”
V1 at a Glance
A handful of highlights offered by the initial version of the new NFPA web-based codes and standards information platform.
Discover the right information when you need it the most
NFPA LiNK users can search keywords based on a particular task, or apply filters based on a situation, and instantly be fed relevant code information. Search “wiring a floating pier,” for example, and find the information contained in Article 555 – Installation requirements for floating buildings and overcurrent protection in the National Electrical Code®.
Curate your own experience
Make notes and bookmark sections of the code just as you would in a traditional code book. These personal notations carry over from edition to edition of the code, too, so there’s no need to re-enter a thought or question.
Collaborate with your peers
Share code sections and subsections with your colleagues and others. You can even share via email with those who are not yet subscribed to NFPA LiNK.
Stay current on cutting-edge technologies and industry trends
With the 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2020 editions of the NEC included in the first version of NFPA LiNK, you can learn how electrical safety has progressed over the past decade. You’ll see, for instance, that the term “power over ethernet” was first included in the 2017 edition of the code—an important sign that PoE is a technology to familiarize yourself with if you haven’t already.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org